Slogans are an effective training tool

© Daniel Biber, Germany, Shortlist, Professional, Natural World & Wildlife, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards, full article here on his photography of starlings.


I use slogans to advance my learning.  But to come up with them, understand the motivation for them, is hard work.

Virtually every organization in which I coach uses slogans too. In fact,  you can now buy the posters hanging in Facebook’s headquarters. They tout what behaviors people should embrace. For them, it’s:

  • run fast and break things
  • don’t mistake motion for progress
  • stay humble

However, too often corprate slogans let us off the hook for sloppy work, allow us to rationalize our progress, or enable false humility. In this context, the slogan fails to teach because employees seldom have a hand in defining them. Slogans also fail becuase they don’t necessarily tap into employees’ deepest motivations, so slogans seldom challenge people as they intend to.

It happens with all of us too, but I won’t get into that here other than to say denial is powerful. We want to be good so badly that we will contort ourselves to fit any message if it represents positive progress for our Ego, and underneath our precious Id.

When I think about what slogans I develop for myself, and how I should create slogans to teach myself, the emphasis is much different. Teaching myself is about challenging my own agency for change and development. I am confronting myself with the question: can I change? can I evolve my thinking on a core belief?

When I do this, I’m trying to catch the first thought that comes to mind. And they come so quickly, almost like starlings, it’s hard to isolate the very first one because it’s so quickly edited away by others.

© Daniel Biber, Germany, Shortlist, Professional, Natural World & Wildlife, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards, full article here on his photography of starlings.

Whatever the topic, I have to remember that the first thought is not my fault. First thoughts are always a reaction. From bird flocks to fish schools to herd animals,  we often seem to react to being perturbed as if of one mind. Flocks behave as critical systems, poised to respond maximally to being perturbed. And that makes sense. It’s about coping to survive. I can relate to that. My initial thought is followed by assumptions and later firmer beliefs that are designed to protect me–and they do, for a time. All that mental motion builds momentum, like a flock of birds acting as if one mind.

But I need to own those later thoughts. The assumptions and beliefs that follow form my world view–and I want my worldview to be flexible. Somewhere, in that pack of starlings, is an essence of me that gets lost.

My work in the world is to help people process their sources of conflict in order to become more effective personally and professionally–to help them feel what they feel and know what they know. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.

So it doesn’t matter what I’m doing throughout my day, whether I’m sleeping, eating, walking, or thinking–I can maintain my goal of providing strategies for relief. As part of that dynamic, I take on a bit of their misery. Providing empathy means I feel into their experience by literally experiencing the feelings of the other person. To maintain my slogan of alleviating suffering by taking on misery, I have to remember my motivation.

For instance, I should not eat merely to satisfy hunger. If I’m living my slogan I eat in order to maintain strength, prolong my life, and thereby be able to fulfill my aspiration of benefiting others.

Looking at the daily task of eating, sleeping, thinking, and working in this way makes every act I engage in bigger. It’s no longer just about “me and my hunger,” or “me and my needs” whatever they are. My mission in life starts to frame my experience.

My daily activities can be more worthwhile if I approach them with a similar motivation. It is hard to adopt this broader view of life all the time. That is why it’s a practice. It takes a lifetime to achieve. And if I’m honest, I’ll probably die trying in the pursuit.

But it does give me a sense of joy and even a little excitement to think that my smallest acts are somehow benefitting someone else energetically. It’s proof, at the most fundamental level, that we are all truly connected. We matter, whether we like it or note. And it is important for me to remember that how I talk to myself today, how I treat myself today, impacts the people I meet next week.

Taking the time to think of my life or the potential for my life this way saves me from succumbing to busy work. Knowing what I’m about provides a tremendous source of comfort when I’m told by someone else that I’m not good enough as I am.

In taking the time to identify a thought and see it through, I benefitted. How often do we really do consider an idea and think it through to its conclusion?  I found it calming and it gave me a sense of direction to the choices I have to make.

So yes, I use slogans to advance my learning. But to come up with one, I needed to understand my motivation for it. It is hard work because I tie it to my Craft and try to hold myself accountable to it.

Fewer slogans, greater accountability.

What is your slogan?


Be in tension

Photo by Sandy Millar

There is a common example in yoga about the importance of holding tension. Namely, that we must inhale and exhale to stay alive. They refer to it as “riding the breath.”

And, I get that sort of literal example. I have to sustain the right blend of breadth and depth to advance in what I’m doing.

Athletes work to sustain peek flexibility and strength. Organizations move between local and distributed control, or of innovation and efficiency. In any of these examples, the goal is to balance the act of replicating success against the need to get to the next performance level.

And there it is, sneaking up on me: my comfort zone.

Too much effort on either side leads to lopsided outcomes. When I merely replicate what I am good I lean more toward efficiency and stagnate. When this happens, it’s an indicator that it’s time to start taking a few more risks and start innovating.

Easier said than done.

Finding tension in this sense is messy, unsteady, risky, and hard. It requires me to be highly focused. I have to find ways to manage my emotions of overwhelm, frustration, or even boredom in order to remain present and pay serious attention to the nuances of my work.

I have to learn to adopt a certain kind of stance, one that is relaxed with what is and what will be.

What it is I think I’m up to…

Photo by Fernando Puente

In 2016, when I completed my research on Master Craftsmen, I was also recovering from painful leg surgery. I had many, many insightful conversations with my subjects. Some conversations were transformative and deeply influenced what work I chose, and how I went about my work. The most important lesson: craftsmanship rests on deliberate practice.

In 2017, I took up daily yoga around the same time as my physical therapy. There, I could take all my anxieties about changing my life’s course and the frustrations of my recovery to my yoga mat. My mat took a pretty big beating in those early months. I had many profound lessons within that 2×5 foot space. Without really intending to, I had taken up a practice and dedicated myself to it. Over time, my practice became very…deliberate. I also was able to make significant connections between what craftsmen and women were referring to by the idea of “showing up”, “meeting a challenge,” or “being deliberate” that I will continue to explore and share.

In 2018, I turned my attention to developing my business (something I had been doing the whole time, but now in a more focused way). I took many of the lessons I had learned and continued to work on them. And, as is typical with most learning, when I stopped going to yoga regularly and stopped writing and researching regularly, I started to forget some of what I had learned. I genuinely learned what I learned, but had not integrated all of my insights fully.

This blog category (NotesFromMyYogaJournal) is one of my practices for trying to anchor my experience by exploring from within and reminding myself about what it means to be human. Part of that work is re-learning what it means to be a good human or to do “humaning” well. 🙂

I refer to “humaning” because I learned so much from my last few years of research, writing, and building my practice. Between learning and integration lies “the journey”, “the struggle”, “the gap.” Hence, this theme…and me sharing some of my own re-learning practice here.

Everything is a conversation…everything.

Photo by Mihai Surdu

Everything is a conversation…everything.

When things feel certain to me, solid, (if I’m fully present) I realize that everything is actually open and workable. This is instruction for learning in action, realizing that I don’t have to feel boxed in because there is always space for adjustment–on my side, their side, and even within the subject itself.

“…it’s just iron, put it back in the fire.”

“…it’s just software, rewrite the code.”

“…it’s just milk…”

Liberate yourself from yesterday.

Photo: @nate_dumlao

Liberate yourself from yesterday.

There is nothing to hang on to–even what you learn today is temporary, specific to where you are right now.

This is probably the hardest lesson, for me. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career, in school, in my own research–creating solutions and solving problems. And I look back on that as “tangible work.”

But is it?

Some of it is tangible.

What I learned about business intelligence remains foundational, there is a certain permanence in that. But the approach to solving problems is different from what it was ten years ago. For example, the climate I operated in, the sponsors I had, the expertise I had–all met the very specific problems of the time.

What I learned in graduate school about decision making and later about how we get better about what we do, all rest on how self-aware we are at any given time.

Time is what makes things temporal.

When I do yoga, when I used to run, or when I engage in something physical I notice inconsistencies more. The fact that I didn’t get enough sleep, drink enough water, or focus enough displays itself immediately in my results. One day I can perform something perfectly, another day I can’t accomplish any of it.

Consistency comes with practice, presence, and lightness.

So it’s important to learn well by “learning lightly.” What you accomplished today is relevant to today’s tally, to today’s lesson. We can try to take what we can and bring it forward. And, we can also look at today as the blank slate it is, to try again.

Reset, by connecting to your essence. 

Photo by James Padolsey

Reset, by connecting to your essence.

When we are at rest we are also at a key starting place. Therein lies a counter-intuitive tension.

There is always a way “back home” in your mind, a way to self-soothe, to calm–where everything is “ok.” You can always “call yourself home” into the present, into an unbiased awareness where things “just are” or something “just is.”

This idea is most relevant when I’m in the midst of overwhelm. I am out of my essence, unmoored and without an anchor, when I am thrown off by my own beginner’s mindset.

Learning something new, especially as an adult, is extremely hard. We spend such a long time dedicating ourselves to becoming an expert in something. To change course seems…as thrilling and exciting as it does frivolous and foolhardy.

I’ve noticed that it invites admiration, wistfulness, and envy in others when they first hear of what I’m doing. Then, a distance comes between us as the questions start to come:

Why do something different? “Because I wanted to.”

Why start something new now? “Because I could.”

Why did you do it? “Because if I didn’t try it, I would always wonder.”

When these questions to come, mostly out of curiosity but sometimes with judgment, I have to remember to call myself home, to me.

Examination doesn’t mean analysis.

Photo: @larm

Examination doesn’t mean analysis.

If I just think about awareness, of the mind and its thoughts, that isn’t the same thing as analysis. Examination is looking for something solid for the Ego to understand (a complex thing, concept, theory…). Analysis is about deconstructing that solid thing in order to understand it.

In the inertia of the day, I sometimes conflate the two, bypassing a thorough examination of something and going right to analysis.

There is tremendous benefit in slowing down to “just see.” My mind races with flashes of things I have to do, am behind on, would like to do better, regret not happening, excited about what is to come. My eyes dart around looking for something to focus on.

Then, I settle in. My breath steadies. My eyes land. My mind relaxes its grip on my thoughts.

Seeing the bigger picture is what makes for an empathetic witness. Empathetic witnessing of one’s own experience is what makes us human. Witnessing someone else’s experience is #GoodHumaning.